The brain is a vital organ that regulates and maintains behaviours, memory, learning, actions, feelings, choices, outlooks, and mental health. It’s also an instrumental part of the central nervous system, which communicates with other vital areas of the body, controlling everything from body temperature to breathing.

Brain health is very important, in order to lead a healthy and balanced life. For the average person, the rule of moderation will offer such balance. Yet for someone with compulsive alcohol addiction, many risks, such as alcohol-related brain damage are instead expected.

Alcohol initially delivers positive feelings to the brain. It does everything from relaxing the body to producing increased levels of dopamine. Yet as the brain becomes overstimulated, as its functionality levels drop, and as feelings become artificial, the risks of dependence and its consequences are high.

Here’s how alcohol addiction affects the brain, along with some guidance on how to withdraw and break away from alcohol abuse. At Nova Recovery, we’re here to deliver support and addiction treatment, to overcome the effects of alcohol dependence.


Dopamine and the brain

Dopamine is a feel-good chemical that is produced in the brain, scientifically recognised as a neurotransmitter. It is a messaging chemical that helps to regulate areas of the body, mostly tapping into the reward and motivation circuits.

High levels of dopamine offer pleasure, boost motivation and improve mental health. If chemicals are knocked off balance, mood and emotions can rapidly change, reflecting depressive and anxious symptoms.

Through a rewarding or positive experience, dopamine levels organically increase in the brain. Over the course of the exposure, the brain will begin to crave such reward, motivating an ongoing cycle of consumption. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that targets the reward region of the brain yet is found to produce even greater levels of dopamine. Through consistent exposure, the brain can begin to adjust to artificial feelings and behaviours and can be knocked off balance, craving ongoing alcohol consumption.

Dopamine and the brain are both negatively affected whilst high levels of alcohol remain in the system, as organic production of the chemical can begin to reduce. Yet now accustomed to higher levels, the brain will continue to demand alcohol and its rewarding associations, due to excessive stimulation.

Alcohol addiction develops and intensifies in the brain, due to how it communicates with neurotransmitters. Recognised as a tolerance, once the brain demands ongoing alcohol exposure to mimic dopamine, breaking away from consumption can be near enough impossible.

Requiring interventive treatment, alcohol addiction can be treated, as can the neurological and emotional consequences. Yet due to the disruptive nature of addiction, management will be key to balancing the brain and body, to improve functionality and reduce relapse.

Here’s exactly how alcohol addiction affects the brain in the short and long term, along with the type of treatments offered through alcohol rehabilitation.


Short term effects of alcohol on the brain

On initial exposure to alcohol, positive feelings and processes can be experienced by the brain. Whilst intoxication can be unmanageable for some, initial consumption is associated with reward and pleasure.

Many individuals will consume alcohol for the euphoric, relaxing, and calming effects that it offers. Increased levels of dopamine are found in the brain at this point of consumption, delivering the feel-good associations of alcohol.

Yet depending on the amount of alcohol that has been consumed, brain function and balance can begin to falter, resulting in negative and unpleasant effects. Binge drinking habits can influence this switch, where excessive alcohol levels enter the body, overstimulating the brain and targeting regions including the cerebral cortex and the cerebellum. Once the intoxicating traits of alcohol hit, which will be at a different point for each person due to tolerance, disruptions can be expected across the body.

Those disruptions can cause many short-term effects on the brain and subsequently carry through the body. Common short-term effects of alcohol on the brain include:

  • Euphoria
  • Pleasure
  • Relaxation
  • Increased confidence
  • A boost in happy chemicals
  • Intoxication
  • Disrupted processes
  • Changes to the central nervous system
  • Confusion
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Poor decision making
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Poor mental health


Long term effects of alcohol on the brain

If alcohol abuse continues, and the brain remains in an overstimulated state, long-term cognitive and neurological effects are expected. Alcohol-related brain damage can be life-limiting, resulting in many unbearable symptoms and co-existing conditions.

Key areas of the brain which regulate emotions, memory, neurological pathways, senses, perception, decision-making, mood, and brain health can all be disrupted through alcohol dependence. Damage to the brain can result in the relapsing disease of addiction, which ingrains compulsive and invasive behaviours, habits, and processes.

Someone who drinks heavily and consistently will be at an increased risk of developing long-term cognitive effects and impairments, including:

  • Alcohol related dementia
  • Co-existing mental health conditions such as depression
  • Long-term brain damage
  • A constant cycle of withdrawal symptoms, which can be dangerous in themselves
  • A permanent disruption to dopamine structures
  • Brain shrinkage, damaging brain cell health
  • Sleep disorders
  • Long-term memory loss
  • Behavioural problems
  • The inability to make decisions and control internal thought processes
  • A lack of impulse control


What happens to the brain when you stop drinking?

Knowing how alcohol addiction affects the brain through constant abuse is very important. It is however essential to be aware of the possible effects which are expected through a pause in consumption or complete withdrawal from alcohol.

The long-term results of alcohol withdrawal can be extremely positive, helping to treat and manage addiction. Yet before reaching this point, an abrupt stop to drinking can cause many cognitive consequences. In some cases, alcohol withdrawal can be fatal, which is why it’s so important to detox under the care and supervision of medical professionals.

As both the body and brain will become accustomed to alcohol through its routine presence, cutting off all exposure will reasonably cause a sense of shock. Processes will again be disrupted, found to cause withdrawal symptoms.

Withdrawal symptoms are physical and psychological responses to the elimination of alcohol. They can be manageable, yet they can also be unmanageable. Those which are unmanageable are usually due to an imbalance in the brain, suppressing the communication of happy chemicals and pleasure.

Symptoms can be treated through a medically assisted alcohol detox and withdrawal medications. Yet in some instances can become life-threatening, developing as alcohol withdrawal syndrome. The most common symptom is delirium tremens, which can cause hallucinations, peaks in body temperature and severe overstimulation.

Without intervention, withdrawing from alcohol can be very dangerous and can cause even greater damages to the brain and its systems. It can also retrigger alcohol abuse as a coping strategy, to block out symptoms, overpowering all attempts to recover.


Recovering from alcohol addiction

Alcohol addiction is an extremely complicated brain disease. It can cause significant internal changes which will require treatment and management.

Recovering from addiction is possible, along with alleviating alcohol-related brain damage. Various treatment, therapies, coping strategies and management tools will need to be worked through in order to restore balance and to regain control. Additional medical support may also be required to rebuild brain health.

Addiction treatment services include alcohol detoxification, cognitive behavioural therapy, group therapy, holistic therapies, mental health treatments, relapse prevention planning, wellbeing management, and aftercare.

Treatment can be arranged here at Nova Recovery, our private addiction recovery hospital, to slowly withdraw and rebuild from alcoholism.

As alcohol addiction affects the brain in many different ways, professional support and treatment should always be sourced. We are here to support you through your personal battles with alcohol.

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John Gillen - Author - Last updated: November 17, 2023

John has travelled extensively around the world, culminating in 19 years’ experience looking at different models. He is the European pioneer of NAD+ (Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide) treatment to Europe in 2010; and recently back from the USA bringing state of the art Virtual Reality Relapse Prevention and stress reduction therapy. His passion extends to other metabolic disturbances and neurodegenerative diseases. The journey continues. In recent times, John has travelled to Russia to study and research into a new therapy photobiomudulation or systemic laser therapy working with NAD+ scientists and the very best of the medical professionals in the UK and the USA, together with Nadcell, Bionad Hospitals own select Doctors, nurses, dieticians and therapists. Johns’ passion continues to endeavour to bring to the UK and Europe new developments with NAD+ Therapy in preventive and restorative medicine and Wellness. In 2017 John Gillen was made a visiting Professor at the John Naisbitt university in Belgrade Serbia.